Here is another excerpt from our forthcoming book, Jurisdiction. In this piece you’ll see how substitutionary atonement fits into the gospel and read a stunning example from Les Miserables:
When providing testimony in court, a witness is required to give direct answers to specific questions. Just like law enforcement professionals are called as witnesses, God has called followers of Christ to bear testimony to the gospel. So what is the gospel?
The gospel is foundational to a Christian worldview. The word originates from the Greek word evangelion, which means good news. Jesus is the good news. Not because He was simply a wise prophet or instructive teacher, but because He was God in the form of man, and sent to atone for the fall of humanity. He was and is the Savior prophesied about in the Old Testament. His perfect life allowed him to be the acceptable sacrifice made on our behalf. His death, burial, and resurrection paid a debt He did not owe, but as imperfect, broken people, we do. This is known as substitutionary atonement written about by both Paul and Peter.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:24).
Grace is the result of substitutionary atonement. It accomplishes what moralism promises, but can never deliver: a changed heart. One of the most powerful literary examples of grace comes from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In the story, we meet a common thief, Jean Valjean, who is befriended by an elderly and kind bishop. Valjean responds to the kindness of this bishop by stealing expensive silverware and running away. Once he is apprehended, he is dragged by the police back to the bishop. Then the bishop does the unthinkable:
Ah, there you are!” he cried, looking straight at Jean Valjean. “Am I glad to see you! But, heavens! I gave you the candlesticks too, you know; they are made of silver like the rest and you can get two hundred francs for them, easily. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”
Jean Valjean’s eyes nearly popped out of his head; he looked at the venerable bishop with an expression no human tongue could convey.
“Monseigneur,” said the sergeant, “is what this man said true, then? We saw him hotfooting it out of town. He looked like he was on the run. So we arrested him to be on the safe side. He had all this silver—”
“And he told you,” the bishop broke in with a smile, “that it had been given to him by some old codger of a priest whose place he’d spent the night in? I can see how it looks. So you’ve brought him back here? There has been a misunderstanding”… “My dear friend,” said the bishop [to Jean Valjean], “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”
He went to the mantelpiece, swept up the two candlesticks, and handed them over to Jean Valjean….Jean Valjean’s whole body was shaking. He took the two candlesticks automatically and with a stricken look on his face.
“Now,” said the bishop, “go in peace.”
Jean Valjean leaves the bishop’s house, stunned by the grace being shown to him:
He did not recognize himself. He could not make sense of what was happening to him. He steeled himself against the old man’s angelic act and against his gentle words…He defended himself against such heavenly forgiveness by means of pride, which is like a stronghold of evil inside us.
-Jon and Jim McNeff, Jurisdiction manuscript
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